July 1916 remembered

England First Party branches across Lancashire are remembering the anniversary of the horrific slaughter on the Somme in 1916. Among the most tragic aspects of this holocaust were the heavy casualties suffered by the so-called “pals” battalions of volunteers, groups of friends, neighbours and work mates who were recruited to serve together, resulting in the decimation of towns and workplaces in a single day.
Some of the 'Accrington Pals' on the rifle range at Ripon, Yorkshire, before embarking for Egypt. They fought in early 1916 in defence of the Suez Canal before heading for France, and their decimation on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Some of the 'Accrington Pals' on the rifle range at Ripon, Yorkshire, before embarking for Egypt. They fought in early 1916 in defence of the Suez Canal before heading for France, and their decimation on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Probably the most famous were the ‘Accrington Pals’ who formed the 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment, recruited in September 1914. The battalion consisted of four companies, each of 250 men: W Company from Accrington itself, X Company from the surrounding district (including some from Blackburn and nearby villages), Y Company from Chorley, and Z Company from Burnley.

Within about half an hour on the first day of the Battle of the Somme – 1st July 1916 – 700 of the Accrington Pals went into action, suffering 585 casualties.

A landmine explodes at Hawthorn Ridge on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916

A landmine explodes at Hawthorn Ridge on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916

In Preston 250 of the first volunteers in September 1914 became the ‘Preston Pals’ – D Company of the 7th Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. Two hundred of these fell during the second phase of the Battle of the Somme which began on 14th July at Bazentin-le-Petit.

Seven battalions of ‘Manchester Pals’ were recruited – overall almost 10,000 men of whom 4,776 were killed during the course of the 1914-18 war.

It was entirely a matter of luck whether a particular battalion was decimated or not, depending on where they happened to be sent. The battalion raised in Oldham were known as the ‘Oldham Comrades’ and suffered relatively light casualties. By contrast the 22nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, raised in the city centre mostly from cotton workers, suffered 472 casualties of the 796 men who saw action on the first day of the Somme.

20,000 British soldiers were killed on that first day, with a further 35,000 wounded. A month later their commanders accepted there was going to be no breakthrough, and dug in for a campaign of attrition, with further offensives in September and November.

A bleak war of attrition followed the failure of the initial British offensives at the Somme.

A bleak war of attrition followed the failure of the initial British offensives at the Somme.

Though by the final end of the Battle of the Somme on 21st November 1916 the British Army had gained only two miles of territory after four and a half months of fighting and 420,000 casualties – two men for every centimetre of ground gained – historians are divided over whether the battle should be termed a military disaster.

One recent analyst, Prof. Gary Sheffield has concluded:
“The battle of the Somme was not a victory in itself, but without it the entente would not have emerged victorious in 1918.”

Yet as with the second European civil war of 1939-45, one thing can be said for certain. For the men and families of the Accrington Pals, the Preston Pals and their equivalents across the country, there was to be no victory.

A Vickers machine gun crew wearing gas masks near the Ovillers section of the Somme battlefield, where the 600 men of the 'Grimsby Chums' - 10th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment - suffered 500 casualties

A Vickers machine gun crew wearing gas masks near the Ovillers section of the Somme battlefield, where the 600 men of the 'Grimsby Chums' - 10th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment - suffered 500 casualties

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